Encourage Honesty At Work With These Easy Tips (Even For Ugly Truths)

As a Certified EOS Implementer it’s no secret that I tell my clients to always pursue honesty at work. One of the founding principles of the Entrepreneurial Operating System® is that no business can meet its potential if the team members are anything less than 100% honest. Building honesty at work is no easy task, but the benefits are immeasurable. Honest companies solve issues quickly, build long lasting client/customer relationships, and are very rarely blindsided by problems.

I don’t want to be biased, though. So, I cooked up this quick little infographic on the benefits of honesty vs the benefits of dishonesty. Take a look.

honesty at work 2

Now to the important business of actually improving honesty in your organization.

You can swear up and down that being totally open and honest is something your employees should do, but you’re competing with a lifetime of hard lessons. People have been taught their whole lives that self preservation sometimes mean hiding the truth. From blaming the broken lamp on the dog to not reporting the departmental losses until the last minute. How it takes form doesn’t matter. What matters is breaking the cycle.

With the strategies below you can build a culture of honesty at work that actually works.

Think Before You Speak

When you or your team are confronted with a situation, one of the best ways to encourage honesty is to give yourselves the time to respond with intention. Responses without intention aren’t exactly dishonest, but they can lead to dishonesty. Consider this example:

  • Person A suggests the team go get pizza
  • Person B doesn’t like pizza, but their first reaction is to say, “That sound good.” 
  • Person A, thinking the team likes pizza, starts a pizza night.
  • Person B holds a little bit of contempt for this and the trust of the team breaks down.

This is a silly example (as usual), but a telling one. Teams operate off of assumptions. If we don’t consider how we react, we can often create misleading information, leading to false assumptions. There are plenty of other ways that not considering your reactions can lead to dishonesty down the road, but the more important notion is that you actively work to improve how your team reacts.

Encouraging Good Reactions

The best way to encourage the members of your team to think before they speak is to provide them with the time to do so. When important decisions or discussion are coming up, give people time to form an opinion. Send out agendas, including information that may inform their decision making process. Hold them accountable for thinking about the issue before the meeting.

On an organizational level you can build this into your followed processes. Let managers and team leaders know that providing appropriate decision making materials and time is required.


Kill All Rumors

Rumors, talking behind backs, and general gossip is never a good thing. And yet, here it is on my list, because so many people do it. 

It’s funny, really. When we hear the term “gossip” or “spreading rumors”, we immediately recognize it as bad. But, when someone wants to tell us something in confidence, we act as if that’s different. It isn’t.

I have a friend with the perfect solution. When someone asks him if they can tell him something in confidence, he very directly says, “If it’s about your personal life, of course. If it pertains to this company, no. If it’s important, you should present it to the team.” Then, the next time he is in front of the team with that person, he asks if they have something they want to share.

Now, I am a bit more…tactful than my friend, but he has a very good point. If an opinion or bit of news is relevant, it should be shared with everyone so the people at the table can act on that information. If it’s a personal complaint about a coworker, tell the team so they can address it. Is it a bit of very bad predictive news? Tell the team. Whatever it is, the answer should be to tell the team.

Rumors are usually either idle chatter about someone’s personal life (no place for that at work) or issues that need to be fixed. If it’s the latter, being honest about it allows the team to solve it.

Discouraging The Rumor Mill

The cheesy but effective solution to this is the discussion box. Usually rumors and gossip happen because the topics are too intimidating to bring up in public. For a leadership team, becoming comfortable with bringing up these topics is part of the journey. For the greater organization a simple anonymous topic discussion box is a great way to smoke out these discussions without putting anyone on the spot. 


Present All Information / Reward The Messenger

I’ve decided to combine two bits of advice I give my clients, because I think they really address the same concern. When you’re building honesty at work, you need to make it clear that honesty means telling hard truths. Sometimes that means being honest when confronted with a hard question. Other times that means being brave enough to bring up bad news or detrimental information even if no one asks you to.

The latter is a difficult habit to get into. Heck my article on Clarity Breaks is all about trying to do that with just yourself. Never mind how hard it is with other people.

However, as hard as it is, it’s necessary for companies to make the hard decisions. That’s why it’s important for leaders to ensure they encourage their team to present all of the necessary information. That doesn’t mean just the information that sounds good or supports the decisions they want. Nope. All of it.

When someone is showing the courage to show you both sides of the story, they’re taking a huge risk to accomplish some very cool team building. Make sure you take the time to show your appreciation for this kind of top notch teamwork.

Rewarding The Messenger

Don’t just shoot them, reward them. And make rewarding them company policy. If someone brings a hard truth to the table, points out an unnoticed problem, or basically puts their job in jeopardy by reporting bad news, incentivise others to do likewise. The incentives and how you plan to deliver them are going to change from team to team, but make sure they are public and significant. Anyone who sticks their neck out needs to know they’re getting a golden necklace, not a guillotine.

The same goes for people providing relevant facts or information that goes against a course of action the support. These are people more concerned with the success of the company than with their own “win record.”


Lay bias out on the table

Fact of life: everyone has bias. Saying you don’t have bias is like saying you don’t have blood. I’m certainly not going to challenge you to prove that, but I know you’re wrong. That’s a weird analogy, but it’s the first one that came to mind, so here we are.

Anyway, the point is that you bias is a part of every person you’ll ever meet, you and me included. Since we know that, we have to work hard to combat it. If we don’t we’ll allow it to influence our decisions and influence the opinions of others. Announced bias can still influence decisions, but by putting on the table and calling it out you accomplish two things. First, you let everyone know that you’re willing to be honest about your internal decision making process. Second, you can factor in the source of your bias as part of the decision, one that may very well be viable and convincing to others in the room.

I think a quick example situation would help illustrate my point here. Let’s say that Mike is the hiring manager on a cyber security team. There are 5 applicants in the pool, one of which is Mike’s cousin. Already you can feel the awkward silences and glances around the room. This can play out one of a few different ways.

  1. Mike doesn’t say anything. He talks about the pros and cons of each potential hire and eventually hires his cousin. Everyone in the room knows it. The trust in the hiring process is severely hurt.
  2. Mike says nothing. He talks about the pros and cons and hires someone, anyone other than his cousin. Everyone knows it. Everyone feels like Mike just did his cousin wrong by not really considering them.
  3. Mike tells everyone that he is biased towards hiring his cousin. He explains the relationship and why that makes him biased. Then he tells everyone that the team is going to decide who to hire. He makes it clear that he will support the decision of the team. 

This simple example capture a lot. People tend to think they can hide their biases, but there’s simply wrong. In social situations, people may or may not be aware of their own biases, but they are always on the look out for each others. It’s a defense mechanism, one that humans are damn good at using. If you try to hide bias, people will know. And, they will find it undermines the trustworthiness of you, the team, and the decisions that get made. 

Start Small

To stop this you should encourage people to always lay their biases on the table before discussing an issue. Start small. This is a hard thing to do and your team deserves the time to work up to it. Start by announcing your own or other team members’ biases in situations that the bias is obvious or inconsequential. This can be something as small as what the team orders for lunch or when they hold the next quarterly meeting. If you have a horse in the race, let it be known. This very small act will begin to build trust and open a space for others to do the same.

As time goes on you can increase the level of bias transparency as you see fit.


Using The Stick

I put this at the end of this article, because it should be your last resort. Behaviors that match your company’s culture should be rewarded. When someone doesn’t behave in a way that’s in line with that culture, it’s time to have conversations around what could be done to improve that.

I strongly recommend taking the 555 Meeting approach as a first step. This is a conversation, not a reprimand, that helps keep employees and management aligned.

If, however, you are struggling building a culture of honesty at work, it may be time to introduce official means of “inspiring” honesty. This is a drastic measure, one you want to avoid if possible. But, having official sanctions or marks on an employment record for moments of dishonesty is always an option. Again, a final option to be used when all else has failed. When you start punishing people for not being honest, you’ve got bigger problems on hand.



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